Writer’s Wednesday: God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

 

A few months ago I read God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, a book which mainly details the many atrocities done in the name of religion.

I do not think this book will convince anyone who genuinely believes that God exists, that s/he does not. I don’t really think that’s the point of the book either. Hitchens powerfully shows that the often heard statement that religion is moral and good, simply isn’t true. He furthermore shows that the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy is just that, a fallacy. Claiming that these horrible doings by religious people couldn’t be done by a “true” Christian/Muslim/Jew/Hindu/Buddhist etc., simply does not change the fact that these things are being done in the name of religion, using the power of the religious institutions.

It’s a very thought-provoking book, however, and I recommend it highly.

Quotes:

[Speaking about atheists] “…We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful. (In fact, if a proper statistical inquiry could ever be made, I’m sure the evidence would be the other way.) We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room. We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse. We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true – that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.”

“The level of intensity fluctuates according to time and place, but it can be stated as a truth that religion does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one. This is only to be expected. It is, after all, wholly man-made. And it does not have the confidence in its own various preachings even to allow coexistence between different faiths.”

“I once heard the late Abba Eban, one of Israel’s more polished and thoughtful diplomats and statesmen, give a talk in New York. The first think to strike the eye about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he said, was the ease of its solubility. From this arresting start he went on to say, with the authority of a former foreign minister and UN representative, that the essential point was a simple one. Two peoples of roughly equivalent size had a claim to the same land. The solution was, obviously, to create two states side by side. Surely something so self-evident was within the wit of man to encompass? And so it would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of a nuclear war. Religion poisons everything. As well as a menace to civilization, it has become a threat to human survival.”

“I pose a hypothetical question. As a man of some fifty-seven years of age, I am discovered sucking the penis of a baby boy. I ask you to picture your own outrage and revulsion. Ah, but I have my explanation all ready. I am a mohel: an appointed circumciser and foreskin remover. My authority comes from an ancient text, which commands me to take a baby boy’s penis in my hand, cut around the prepuce, and complete the action by taking his penis in my mouth, sucking off the foreskin, and spitting out the amputated flap along with a mouthful of blood and saliva. This practice has been abandoned by most Jews, either because of its unhygienic nature or its disturbing associations, but it still persists among the sort of Hasidic fundamentalists who hope for the Second Temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem. To them, the primitive rite of the peri’ah metsitsah is part of the original and unbreakable covenant with god. In New York City in the year 2005, the ritual, as performed by a fifty-seven-year-old mohel, was found to have given genital herpes to several small boys, and to have caused the deaths of at least two of them. In normal circumstances, the disclosure would have led the public health department to forbid the practice and the mayor to denounce it. But in the capital of the modern world, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, such was not the case. Instead, Mayor Bloomberg overrode the reports by distinguished Jewish physicians who had warned of the danger of the custom, and told his health care bureaucracy to postpone any verdict. The crucial thing, he said, was to be sure that the free exercise of religion was not being infringed.”

“Now religion professes a special role in the protection and instruction of children. “Woe to him,” says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “who harms a child.” The New Testament has Jesus informing us that one so guilty would be better off at the bottom of the sea, and with a millstone around his neck at that. But both in theory and in practice, religion uses the innocent and the defenseless for the purposes of experiment. By all means let an observant Jewish adult male have his raw-cut penis placed in the mouth of a rabbi. (That would be legal, at least in New York.) By all means let grown women who distrust their clitoris of their labia have them sawn away by some other wretched adult female. By all means let Abraham offer to commit filicide to prove his devotion to the Lord or his belief in the voices he was hearing in his head. By all means let devout parents deny themselves the succor of medicine when in acute pain and distress. By all means – for all I care – let a priest sworn to celibacy be a promiscuous homosexual. By all means let a congregation that believes in whipping out the devil choose a new grown-up sinner each week and lash him until he or she bleeds. By all means let anyone who believes in creationism instruct his fellows during lunch breaks. But the conscription of the unprotected child for these purposes is something that even the most dedicated secularist can safely describe as a sin.”

“We have no way to quantify the damage done by telling tens of millions of children that masturbation will make them blind, or that impure thoughts will lead to an eternity of torment, or that members of other faiths including members of their own families will burn, or that veneral disease will result from kisses. Nor can we hope to quantify the damage done by holy instructors who rammed home these lies and accompanied them with floggings and rapes and public humiliations. Some of those who “rest in unvisited tombs” may have contributed to the good of the world, but those who preached hatred and fear and guilt and who ruined innumerable childhoods should have been thankful that the hell they preached was only one among their wicked falsifications, and that they were not sent to rot there.”

“Actually, the “leap of faith” – to give it the memorable name that Soren Kierkegaard bestowed upon it – is an imposture. As he himself pointed out, it is not a “leap” that can be made once and for all. It is a leap that has to go on and on being performed, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. This effort is actually too much for the human mind, and leads to delusions and manias. Religion understands perfectly well that the “leap” is subject to sharply diminishing returns, which is why it often doesn’t in fact rely on “faith” at all but instead corrupts faith and insults reason by offering evidence and pointing to confected “proofs.” This evidence and these proofs include arguments from design, revelations, punishments, and miracles. Now that religion’s monopoly has been broken, it is within the compass of any human being to see these evidences and proofs as the feeble-minded inventions that they are.”

“However, he fell into the same error as to the Christians, in assuming that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record. Their multiple authors – none of whom published anything until many decades after the Crucifixion – cannot agree on anything of importance. Matthew and Luke cannot concur on the Virgin Birth or the genealogy of Jesus. They flatly contradict each other on the “Flight into Egypt,” Matthew saying that Joseph was “warned in a dream” to make an immediate escape and Luke saying that all three stayed in Bethlehem until Mary’s “purification according to the laws of Moses,” which would make it forty days, and then went back to Nazareth via Jerusalem.”

“…Many years after C.S. Lewis had gone to his reward, a very serious young man named Barton Ehrman began to examine his own fundamentalist assumptions. He had attended the two most eminent Christian fundamentalist academies in the United States, and was considered by the faithful to be among their champions. Fluent in Greek and Hebrew (he is now a holder of a chair in religious studies), he eventually could not reconcile his faith with his scholarship. He was astonished to find that some of the best-known Jesus stories were scribbled into the canon long after the fact, and that this was true of perhaps the best-known of them all. [The story of the woman taken in adultery.]“

“Even supposing this version of events to be correct [the standardization of the Qur'an], which would mean that no chance existed for scholars ever to determine or even dispute what really happened in Muhammad’s time, Uthman’s attempt to abolish disagreement was a vain one. The written Arabic language has two features that make it difficult for an outsider to learn: it uses dots to distinguish consonants like “b” and “t”, and in its original form it had no sign or symbol for short vowels, which could be rendered by various dashes or comma-type marks. Vastly different readings even of Uthman’s version were enabled by these variations. Arabic script itself was not standardized until the later part of the ninth century, and in the meantime the undotted and oddly voweled Koran was generating wildly different explanations of itself, as it still does. This might not matter in the case of the Iliad, but remember that we are supposed to be talking about the unalterable (and final) word of god. There is obviously a connection between the sheer feebleness of this claim and the absolutely fanatical certainty with which it is advanced. To take one instance that can hardly be called negligible, the Arabic words written on the outside of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem are different from any versions that appears in the Koran.”

“Anybody, therefore, who uses the [Martin Luther] King legacy to justify the role of religion in public life must accept all the corollaries of what they seem to be implying. Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out the best. The chance that someone’s secular or freethinking opinion would cause him or her to denounce the whole injustice was extremely high. The chance that someone’s religious belief would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small. But the chance that someone’s religious belief would cause him or her to uphold slavery and racism was statistically extremely high, and the latter fact helps us to understand why the victory of simple justice took so long to bring about.”

“Kant’s principle enjoins us to “act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a general natural law.” In this summary of mutual interest and solidarity, there is no requirement for any enforcing or supernatural authority. And why should there be? Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.”

“I therefore cite Albert Einstein, so much misrepresented, once again. He is addressing a correspondent who is troubled by yet another of those many misrepresentations:
It was of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Years later he answered another query by stating:
I do not believe in the immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.”

 

3 Comments

  1. LK

    Interesting. Seeing this title I would not think that this is what the book is about. I would automatically assume it is a person refuting the existence of God not saying that those who commit horrible acts in the name of religion cannot really be religious people. And how people use religion as a source of power. I get why he chose “God is not great” as the phrase for the title, but I feel like its a bit misleading now that i know what the book is about.

    Every book your bring up I add to my list! If you want a really thought provoking book try Anger by Tich Naht Hanh. Brilliant look at the purpose of anger in our lives from a Buddhist philosophy perspective. Its a bit different from what you’ve been reading but its an amazing book.

  2. Hmmm, I don’t know, the title made sense to me. But I think it’s probably a rather individual thing.

    Heh, I know the problem, my list of books to read grows at a crazy rate. I’ll add Anger to my list!

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